(2022-05-11) A Twitter Exodus & The Fediverse

So recently some rich guy you might have heard of named Elon Musk decided to buy Twitter and become its majority shareholder, and that made some people happy and some people upset. I don't really want to get into a lot of the debates surrounding that whole drama, but I do have some small things I want to say. Say what you want about how Twitter will improve or get worse or both under Elon's ownership, but I'm skeptical that Elon will be able to increase Twitter's userbase and increase Twitter's revenues. This view has less to do with how good or bad Elon is at running businesses, and more with how bad Twitter fundamentally is as a business and how making popular and profitable social media companies is very hard. Elon's resume is quite irrelevant to running Twitter. If he does somehow succeed at "improving" Twitter from a business perspective, it will come from a newfound understanding of how Twitter operates from the admin side and not from his understanding of it as a long time power user.

2022-05-20 Update: so apparently there's a chance that the Twitter acquisition might not go through? Whatever happens my views are basically the same.

Some of the people who were upset enough about Elon buying Twitter decided to go look for places that were better in their eyes. One of these places is this thing called Mastodon, which is part of a thing called the Fediverse. From the perspective of Twitter the Elon exodus was teeny-tiny, but from the perspective of the Fediverse it was a huge influx of newcomers that caused some server problems. So what is this "Fediverse" thing anyway? Explaining the Fediverse to someone who is not a tech nerd is a little bit like explaining Vocaloid to someone who is not a weeb, people either take long to get it, or they don't really care. I'm going to explain everything I know here as best as I can anyway.

The Fediverse is a decentralized network of social networks that can interact with one another through open protocols. In essence, a person from one social site can follow and interact with people from any other social site in this open network. And anyone good with computers can quickly install readily-available open source server software for creating their own indie social network that can interact with this network of social networks. To join the Fediverse as a regular user, you don't sign up for a single large centralized and walled-off social network. You instead sign up for one of the thousands of smaller social networks that are part of the Fediverse network. The Fediverse is basically like email in a modern social web format with people from different social sites connecting with each other just like people on different email providers can send emails to one another. This method of connecting such separate systems together is called "federation", and the word "fediverse" comes from a portmanteau of "federation" and "universe" as a fun description of this network of social networks.

There are downsides to the Fediverse, which I will explain later on, but first let's look at a few big selling points to this way of doing things. First, there is no big single corporation which can create a walled garden and control everyone's access and personal data in the Fediverse. Regular users have way more leverage over everything because of this. Another selling point is that you can join (or spin up your own) social sites that can have completely different approaches to moderation, and can ban or not ban anything they want. So in a way the Fediverse has ended up being a refuge for both people who want big centralized social networks to moderate things more and people who want big centralized social networks to moderate things less. One more (temporary?) selling point is that there is no real profit motive for the Fediverse. There are no ads, no dark patterns, and no algorithms that try to manipulate you into spending money or being addicted to it or whatever. A final selling point I'll mention is that the decentralized nature of the Fediverse means it can't easily die the way a regular social network can. Sure, individual sites in the Fediverse (often called "instances") can die off, which would be annoying for the people on them, but those people can just jump to another one of the many other sites that are part of the Fediverse, and keep the Fediverse rolling along.

In the Fediverse there are a lot of different pieces of social software that you may run into, in this section I will go over some of them. The most popular Fediverse software that exists and one you may have heard of is Mastodon. Mastodon is not the oldest software of the Fediverse, but it is huge and today probably has more active users on it than the rest of the Fediverse. It was originally created in late 2016 and blew up in 2017 and got to a million users (or sign ups more likely) by the end of that year. Mastodon is heavily influenced/inspired by Twitter because the creator (Gargron) was a former Twitter addict who decided to make his own decentralized network based off of it. Though it's not an exact Twitter copy and does have some unique features like custom emojis and posts where you can have a section where you click to expand which is useful for stuff like spoiler warnings, content warnings, and long post warnings. Since it is very Twitter-like, has the whole decentralized social networking thing, and is the most popular software in the Fediverse, it's the place that a lot of people who want to get away from Twitter end up. Since Mastodon has become so vast and also has tons of international users who don't speak English that use it, it's not really reasonable to generalize Mastodon users much, but the core community that surrounds the flagship Mastodon instance and the instances that get promoted by the main website seem to be a little bit leftist.

Next up in the Fediverse there is Pleroma. Pleroma started development at around the time Mastodon was first released, and started taking off about 2019-ish. It has sort of become the go-to "Mastodon alternative" for people who don't like the Mastodon software for whatever reason but want to use something similar. It is of course compatible with Mastodon through the Fediverse protocols and can even run the Mastodon web client and can connect with Mastodon mobile apps. Pleroma is a lot more efficiently-coded compared to Mastodon, and can run on less powerful server hardware better than Mastodon. The creator of Pleroma (Lain) is a fan of Cereal Experience Lane and seems to have been a regular of Lainchan. Because of that the core community of Pleroma is highly influenced by imageboard culture and all its associated chaos. There are probably political disagreements between Mastodon and Pleroma developers, but the biggest disagreements between them seem to be more technical/philosophical as explained in this interview with Lain.

Another cool software of the Fediverse (and the only one I've used so far) is Misskey. Misskey is largely compatible with Mastodon and Pleroma, but is a lot more feature-rich compared to both of those. These features include custom emoji reactions to posts, "Misskey-flavoured markdown" which has a lot of wacky ways to customize your post formatting, and the ability to give your user avatar cat ears which also automatically nyan-ifies the writing in your posts. It's not as lightweight as Pleroma, but it is lighter to run compared to Mastodon. The creator of Misskey (syuilo) is a Japanese guy who started working on Misskey in 2018. I don't really know much about syuilo right now because of the language barrier, but one thing I find a little funny is that this guy sometimes renotes (Misskey "retweets") hentai drawings on his main Misskey account, some of which is hentai of the Misskey mascot girl, Ai.

I don't really know how Misskey grew over time, but I originally discovered it in the summer of 2021 and signed up for the main flagship instance mostly to lurk around. It later had a database problem and the best backups were months out of date and I lost my account there. I did want to rejoin the Fediverse, but I put it off until this recent Elon exodus from Twitter put more spotlight on the Fediverse again. This time I decided to not go with the flagship Misskey instance and found a smaller instance that currently runs on a Thinkpad with its screen removed. Misskey was mostly Japanese people with a few English-speaking interlopers when I was on it last year, but now it seems to be becoming more popular with English-speaking people who are realizing that Mastodon isn't the only Fediverse software in existence. The Misskey community is still small right now and most of the people using it are Japanese otaku and Western weebs. I highly recommend using Misskey if you join the Fediverse.

So far all the Fediverse software I've listed falls under the category of "microblogging" Twitter alternatives, but there are even more kinds of Fediverse software out there, some of which can't precisely be categorized as "social network" software. There's PeerTube (Fediverse YouTube), PixelFed (Fediverse Instagram), Write Freely (Fediverse Medium), Funkwhale (Fediverse SoundCloud), and Lemmy (Fediverse Reddit). A lot of these are fully or partially compatible with the three microblogging apps I mentioned earlier. Of course if I'm going to list Fediverse software it's important to list the old school software that predates the Cambrian explosion set off by Mastodon and the official Fediverse protocol it adopted called ActivityPub. These include diaspora, GNU Social, and Friendica. Here is a list of all the known Fediverse software. And if you feel like all of these Fediverse software suck or don't do something you want them to do, you can create your own software that works with the Fediverse if you have the coding skillz to do so.

One thing I should mention is that not everyone has the exact same definition of "Fediverse". The most common definition, which is the definition the Wikipedia page on the Fediverse uses is basically the federated network of the aforementioned web publishing systems. Some people however have a more expansive view of the meaning of Fediverse and use it to mean literally any internet communication software that can federate, which includes things like XMPP and Matrix, which are federated instant messaging protocols and their software that are sometimes hosted on the same websites that run Mastodon & other Fediverse stuff. Other people (and me sometimes) only use it to mainly refer to just the microblogging sphere of Mastodon/Pleroma/Misskey. But there are even some people who use Fediverse to only refer to just Mastodon severs connecting to each other, because they are unaware that there are other pieces of Fediverse software out there.

Now here's the part where I start talking about the downsides of the Fediverse. Some of these are big, potentially deal-breaking problems, while others are problems that you may never run into if you are lucky and/or careful. I'm going to split these into two categories: one for regular users, and one for people who choose to run Fediverse instances. First, the user problems:

The first, and probably the biggest problem of the Fediverse is fragmentation. If you thought that any Fediverse site can connect with and communicate with any other Fediverse site at any time, you were wrong. The largest Fediverse instance was at some point blocked by the second-largest Fediverse instance because of a morally grey and sometimes illegal issue depending on where you live. You see, the largest Fediverse instance (pawoo.net) which was run by the Japanese art site Pixiv, allows lolicon to be posted there, which is legal in Japan. The second-largest Fediverse instance (mastodon.social) which is run by the lead developers of the Mastodon software is based in Germany, where lolicon is also legal. However due to the views of the community and the admin(s) of mastodon.social, lolicon is a huge no-no, and they decided to block pawoo.net so that they are never exposed to it. This split happened back in 2017 and was the first major schism in the history of Mastodon, which is the software that both pawoo.net and mastodon.social run on. Today you can interact with pawoo.net accounts from mastodon.social, but there are some limitations.

There are countries where lolicon is illegal, and you can potentially face penalties for hosting that stuff on your instance if you have your server in those countries, which is something that you can end up accidentally doing in the Fediverse if you are the owner of a Fediverse instance and configure it to cache images from all other instances you connect to to improve performance. So people cannot legally avoid blocks between instances and thus fragmentation is fundamentally unavoidable for everyone on the Fediverse. Of course this one particular issue is understandable for a lot of people because of the legal issues, plus it certainly turns off a lot of people (even many Japanese people), but since Fediverse instance owners can block other instances arbitrarily, blocks go way beyond just legal issues.

Undermoderated instances getting blocked by overmoderated instances, strong political differences between instances causing blocks, and instances that post a lot of spam and/or harassment getting blocked are all something that often happen and you'd probably expect. People ultimately want a good experience when they visit their social site, and it certainly won't make the Fediverse more popular if people cannot block things like spam and harassment. A lot of the Fediverse software do include self-moderation tools that allow you to block problematic instances and other things yourself, but many people are mostly fine leaving that to their instance admins and jannies. This of course results in more fragmentation of the Fediverse.

However, people can go even more beyond that. The admins and jannies of some instances also sometimes block other instances due to small political differences or just interpersonal drama. I've heard of people running Mastodon instances that, get this, block literally any instance that runs Pleroma or Misskey, because they've associated potentially problematic content with just the software it may be hosted on. Yeah, fragmentation is an unavoidable and stupid part of the Fediverse. The best and only way to ensure that you can interact with the most people in the Fediverse is to get your own domain name and create a Fediverse instance where you are the only user there. Single user instances are not uncommon in the Fediverse, and there is even Fediverse software tailored for this purpose. People often say that this is a bad solution because setting up your own server is beyond the tech skillz and patience of a lot of people, but these days you can find Fediverse hosts like Masto.host that for a monthly fee set everything up and do all the server maintenance for you.

The fact that you can't get broad access to the Fediverse for free is a nice segue into another problem, actually figuring out what instance you want to sign up for as a regular user. There are thousands of Fediverse instances active right now, and finding one that you like can sort of be a problem since you don't really know if an instance's community is exactly for you and if you'll be able to interact with all the instances you want to interact with. What some people end up doing to deal with this is just hop between instances or create multiple accounts on different instances. When you find an instance that you like and sign up for it, you may also have difficulty finding people you like and want to follow. There is this account that recommends and has lists of interesting people in the Fediverse you can follow.

Discovery used to be a much worse problem earlier on as the sites that made Fediverse software just gave you an explanation of why they are so cool and installation instructions for their software, and didn't point you towards a list of instances you can go sign up for. The creators of Fediverse software have heard feedback because of that loud and clear, and now Mastodon, Pleroma, and Misskey all have lists of instances that use their software on their sites. There is also this list of the largest Fediverse instances which is interesting to browse through. Consider joining the Thinkpad-powered Misskey instance that I'm on right now if you still can't decide which instance(s) to join.

Next issue of the Fediverse is that there is nothing really inherent to the Fediverse that prevents there being a lot of the same kind of sanctioned harassment or toxicity that you can find on regular centralized social networks. It's even possible that harassment and toxicity can end up being worse in the Fediverse than on centralized social networks if the Fediverse becomes larger and gets more noteworthy "influencers" on it. I find it strange that a lot of the marketing and praise I've seen for the Fediverse make it seem like it's inherently more "kinder" and "safer" than Twitter. There was an incident with someone famous and mildly controversial joining the Fediverse and then being driven off back in 2018. Now there are many nuances to that issue some of which could possibly justify what happened, but the fact that this happened pretty early in Mastodon's history demonstrates that the Fediverse isn't immune to harassment and toxicity.

The Fediverse right now isn't populated with any famous people, and is full of nobodies and people who are only noteworthy within niches, which is something that a lot of Fediverse users really like and don't want to change. However, what happens if or when the Fediverse becomes larger and larger and gets more "influencers" on it? There will probably be a lot of harassment incidents like the one mentioned before, and there will also likely be plenty of hate mobs driven by influential people in the Fediverse. One more thing I'd like to mention is that I've noticed some people in the Fediverse write posts which use toxic language that is basically the same as what you'd see in a really bad tweet that got way too many likes and retweets. I'm not really sure how people can say that the Fediverse is inherently less toxic if that kind of stuff isn't super rare, and will probably increase if people eventually make or customize Fediverse software with popularity algorithms that would encourage more that stuff, which would leave the Fediverse with the same problems as big social networks, just decentralized.

The final regular user issue in the Fediverse I'll talk about is instance admins who either admin too much or admin too little. Lots of Fediverse software has the option for you to send direct posts or direct messages to other users which cannot be seen by everyone. However, they can be seen by instance admins, and there apparently have been cases where people got banned from an instance for "privately" sending something that a nosy admin didn't like, or worse, had their messages exposed to everyone. Now the creators of Fediverse software are currently considering or working on end-to-end encrypted chats, which can prevent this kind of stuff from happening. However, doing that comes with some annoyances that make things less convenient than the current way of doing things. There are probably other kinds of admin abuse that has happened in the Fediverse other than private messages getting read, but I haven't heard of them yet. The opposite of that issue is absentee or negligent instance admins. Yeah, so apparently it's possible to lose a Fediverse account of yours because your instance admin forgot to pay their server hosting bill. Oops. This is another reason people sometimes create multiple accounts on different instances, so they have a back up and don't have to spend a lot of time rebuilding.

Let's talk about the problems that Fediverse instance admins have to deal with. Again, some of these may never be issues for those who are lucky and/or careful, which in this case I think is the majority. Here goes:

The first problem is basically the same community moderation headaches that anyone who's run a message board or a Discord server or whatever has had to deal with: people breaking the rules or being dicks, people complaining about everything, moderators that you appointed overmoderating or undermoderating. Just like with most online communities this is a tiny issue if you're running a small community, but if you get more popular, you'll probably have to jannie everything up.

Next problem would be the worrying about stuff that happens when you are asleep or AFK. The server you are running can go down or crash, and that makes people annoyed, so you need to worry about uptime. Then there's having to worry about having very illegal content being posted on your site and being up for enough time for someone to notice it and report it. And as mentioned before, if you have caching enabled you can accidentally end up hosting illegal stuff from other instances that your instance federates with. You can appoint moderators to deal with this, but even then there could be some moments where something gets in while mods are asleep. This isn't a problem exclusive to the Fediverse, but it is something that you have to think about.

Another issue that happens frequently enough is DDOS attacks on Fediverse instances. Basically if you or someone on your instance make someone mad, that person can take your server down by overwhelming it with junk traffic. And this isn't some highly technical affair, lots of "DDOS services" are just regular websites where you provide a link to something to DDOS, pay for it, and you get a DDOS right away. There are services that can protect your instance from DDOS like Cloudflare, but that kind of stuff is frowned upon by lots of people in the Fediverse because it goes against the decentralization ideals of the Fediverse. Plus, things like Cloudflare can be bypassed if you don't know what you're doing. Even if you don't get DDOS'd, apparently sometimes an instance server can get the hug of death by a post on it going viral in the Fediverse.

The final problem for Fediverse admins I'd like to point out is money. Servers cost money to host, and someone needs to pay their bill. A small Fediverse instance with a few hundred users can be very affordable and their cost can easily come out of the admin's pocket. The majority of Fediverse instances are like this so money is not a problem for most admins. For servers that continue growing and reach thousands of users and more, the hosting costs may start to become a problem especially if the admin is like a college student or something. At that point some source of funding is needed. The common way to get this is to just ask the instance users for donations, which is usually reliable as far as I can tell because many people are grateful for their admin's work and understand that servers aren't free, plus they don't want their instance community to die. I'm not yet aware of large Fediverse instances that have died because server costs got too high and donations plus admin's personal funding wasn't enough to keep up, but this may potentially become a more of a problem if the Fediverse gets full of a lot of relative normies that don't care about the money issues of popular instances.

Okay, that's it for the downsides I know about so far. I'm not sharing all of these negative downsides to the Fediverse to scare people away from it, but rather to temper people's expectations and let them be aware of what they may be getting into. For a lot of people on the Fediverse, their experience has been delightful for years, and you may also end up having a great experience if you join. It's cool that social media can be structured in a way that doesn't require a central authority to run everything, and I think if more people join the Fediverse, the social internet will become a little less shitty.

For those who think that the downsides are still too much and that large scale centralized social media is better, even "ruined" by billionaires, I'd like to make an argument for why you should participate in the Fediverse anyway. First of all, you can be a part of both the Fediverse and regular social media. Secondly, you can embrace the (organized) chaos of the Fediverse and maybe use it to your advantage. Because the Fediverse has sort of a learning curve and has all these problems, it creates a virtual barrier to entry and filters out a lot of normies and Brands™. This means that the community on it is mostly people dedicated to this way of communicating on the internet. It is akin to the conditions that created the community of the weird early internet, except this time, there's a possibility that it might be able to be sustained forever. If it's not, and the Fediverse gets an Eternal September eventually, well, how about experiencing this weird community while it lasts?

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